Talking to Wired in 1999, Jeff Bezos made a famous prediction about the future of in-store shopping. By 2020, he said, the only physical storefronts remaining would offer either “immediate convenience” or a memorable experience.
I don’t need to say much about the clairvoyance of Bezos’ vision. The bifurcated reality he predicted becomes truer by the day across retail, as more and more stores lose ground to online alternatives. But as I consider his words in the context of today’s return-to-office debates, I’m struck by how well a similar lens applies to employees.
Many leaders, determined to see employees back in the office, have approached the RTO question through a lens of carrots and sticks. In a survey of over 400 CEOs — all of whom lead companies with more than $500 million in annual revenue — 90 percent said they were “likely to ‘reward employees who make an effort to come into the office with favorable assignments, raises or promotions.’” Others are considering punishing those who don’t show up.
I’m skeptical of both approaches, as I’m not sure that either truly justifies the loss of convenience that RTO policies impose on employees. Because that’s the thing: remote work is convenient for people. It permits more flexibility, eliminates time spent commuting and allows deeper work-life integration. This is not to say it’s the only way; it’s not. But we’re in an age where we need to treat employees like customers — we can’t take their loyalty for granted, and as leaders, we need to meet them where they are. If you’re going to limit or take away convenience from them, the alternative should not feel like an arbitrary requirement. It should feel like a meaningful, purposeful experience.
The leaders requiring returns to the office have goals in mind, often involving productivity, innovation, culture or some mix of the three. If these are the goals driving RTO policies, these are the outcomes that employees should be rewarded for, and the problem is that the sheer act of showing up does not always directly connect to them. The research around hybrid work is noisy, inconclusive and highly context-dependent. For leaders crafting RTO or hybrid work policies, there’s a high risk of seeing what you want to see, rather than what the data truly tells you is working. Showing up should only be rewarded as a stand-alone achievement if you have true, convincing data supporting the connection between doing so and your organization’s larger goals. A culture built around seeming productive more so than being productive is not going to succeed. And if employees feel decisions are driven by gut instincts or pride rather than what’s truly best for the organization, I can promise you that the costs to your credibility will outweigh the benefits of water-cooler chat.
Personally, I miss the office. I miss the conversations. I miss the hallways and cafeterias and the spontaneous interstitial moments they helped bring to life.
That said, I don’t miss commuting. I don’t miss sitting in my office all day on consecutive phone calls. While there are things I’m sad to have lost, there are also things I’m glad to see changed. And on both sides of it, many of these things come down to my personal working style.
I think we owe it to ourselves and our employees to bring all this complexity into the RTO conversation. When we talk about returning to how things were, we need to really ask ourselves what we’re talking about. What worked well, what didn’t and what evidence has led us to those conclusions? Employees will want to know.
Because ultimately, my feelings are not necessarily what is best for my organization. For as much as I miss some of the things we’ve lost the last few years, I trust my people to know what they need, and I know that keeping their trust is more important than any specific RTO policy will ever be.